Hollywood 'Star' Removed When Gay Actor Becomes a Hermit

For David Manners, one of Hollywood's leading men in the 1930s, leaving the film industry meant keeping his personal integrity intact. Rather than lead a false life like so many closeted actors of the day, he opted to detox in the desert.
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A Jan. 1, 1933 photo of Hollywood screen stars David Manners, left, Adrienne Ames and Charles Farrell. (AP Photo)
A Jan. 1, 1933 photo of Hollywood screen stars David Manners, left, Adrienne Ames and Charles Farrell. (AP Photo)

One generally doesn't think of the film industry in Hollywood as producing spiritual thinkers, but that's not the case when it comes to David Manners. Manners was one of Hollywood's leading men in the 1930s and worked with actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. But despite the Hollywood machine's portrayal of him as a handsome, eligible leading man, Manners had other ideas about his direction in life. At the height of his lucrative film career, he took an unlikely detour: the California Mojave Desert to live the life of a hermit.

Although to some, Manners' exit from the glamor of Hollywood might have had the queer tick of a present-day Donald Trump giving up his wealth in order to enter a rat-infested cell on Mount Athos, for Manners, leaving the film industry meant keeping his personal integrity intact. He was tired of the Hollywood publicity machine arranging studio dates with women, so rather than lead a false life like so many closeted actors of the day, he opted to detox in the desert. His goal then was to discover the nature of God and the universe, and to do that he founded the Yucca Loma Ranch and began exploring the great religious writings of the East and West.

While it may have been easier for a lesser-known actor to walk away from Hollywood, as David Morgan Jones wrote in The Wonder Within You, a collection of the metaphysical journals of Manners, "[B]y 1935, his fan club counted 200,000 members and four secretaries handled the correspondence. His popularity was so high, he was one of the first 100 actors to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard."

But Jones notes, "His star is no longer there," an odd fact, indeed, when common knowledge seems to dictate that when one has a star on Hollywood Boulevard, the star is there forever. Unfortunately Jones provides no clue as to why Manners' star was removed. The reader is left to assume that this happens when old celebrities fade into obscurity, or when an actor or actress hightails it to the desert to explore spiritual questions.

The removal of Manners' star, however, seems to speak volumes about the transitory nature of earthly fame, something Manners himself would understand and appreciate.

Hollywood, after all, isn't interested in permanence. For every handsome Hollywood leading man there are a hundred others waiting to take his place. Toward the end of his life, Manners wrote, "Perhaps to the young, old age looks pretty grim, but let me tell it. For this ancient one, this is the happiest, most beautiful time of a long life. How come? The appearances are that I have less freedom, less motion, less of everything, including hair and shape, but these are the lesser blessings. There are blessings today that were never dreamed of."

Although Manners never came to accept a specific creed -- he examined Catholicism, Anglicanism, Christian Science, Zen, Taoism and Buddhism -- he opted to find "Truth" in the form of his own philosophy, basically a generalized compendium of the basic truths of all the world's great religions. While this may seem like a generic and general mishmash, it gave him a purpose in life. He would not end his days descending a long staircase à la Sunset Boulevard.

"Consciousness does not die. Consciousness is an attribute of God; therefore, it is eternal. What is there to fear? Nothing real is ever lost. Much that is believed to be real is lost. Life is an attribute of God and is indestructible," Manners wrote.

At times Manners' journal comes off as a kind of companion piece to the Oprah-fueled The Secret, though Manners promises no material riches from any of his "applications."

"Go with the rhythms of life," he advises. "Bend like a reed or a willow. After a peak of activity, be ready for the quiet place in preparation for the rise that follows. Never resist. Never grieve after yesterday. Never look for tomorrow. For what is, here now. Watch in tranquil surety where you are."

According to Jones, Manners suffered "from conflicts over his sexuality and his yearning for spiritual sustenance and release." That's understandable, given the time. It is also true that men or women who retreat in this way often transcend sexual desire and adopt a kind of celibacy that, in the end, is neither straight nor gay.

Manners published two novels and would have published a third were it not for the paper shortage during World War II. However, in 1948 he did meet the man who would become his companion for 30 years, Frederic William Mercer, a playwright. The two eventually left the ranch and found property near the ocean in Pacific Palisades.

Manners died in 1998 at the age of 98.

As a compendium of quotations and words to live by, this little book is worth a second look.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post erroneously stated that Manners died in 1978. It was his partner, Bill Mercer, who died that year. Manners died 20 years later, in 1998. The post has been updated accordingly.

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